Former Lives

Band: Benjamin Gibbard
Album: Former Lives
Best song: “Bigger Than Love” is very good.
Worst song: “Oh Woe” misses the mark quite a bit.

I used to have a theory that creativity was like a pool of liquid. It was something I came up with when I was in high school, largely based on late-career Bob Dylan. The best artists have a bigger pool, of course, but that pool runs out. Dylan’s earliest work, I was thinking at the time, was his best.

I’ve since switched to Matt Groening’s theory on first exposure to anything serial or long-running, essentially a redo of “back in my day…” thinking. Whatever first encountered is the thing to which you are devoted because humans are nostalgic creatures. Plus, the entire notion is pretty logical: If this is what drew me in, how can it not be the greatest?

Equally important — for people my age and of my same bent — is the old idea of mainstream v. indie or the general thought of “selling out.” The second an artist or band stopped being lo-fi or aesthetically less, it was less real. To keep with Dylan, the notion of his going electric bothered a ton of people, the mid-60s equivalent of “selling out.” Folk music:indie as electric:full mainstream rock.

This is an entirely an issue with those of us who are on old side of the Millenial generation or the younger side of X. People like myself grew up on Nirvana and Sub Pop and the notion that indie labels were important. “Indie rock” was a thing then, largely because the digital music revolution was not happening, at that point. Distribution was difficult for an indie rock label, so you couldn’t get Death Cab for Cutie records at a Best Buy.

Nevertheless, this switch was an easy indicator. REM was great on IRS, they sucked on Warner. Nirvana was better on Bleach than on the Geffen records. Soundgarden’s work on Sub Pop and SST weren’t good, they were great. The later ones were shit. And so on. This was the preeminent viewpoint on things like this, as college radio mattered and “indie rock” was the main subculture.

It mucked up the entire process, of course. When was 10, Nevermind broke and got me into Nirvana. A couple of years later, I bought Bleach and decided that the best of the band was on this album, largely because it was on an indie label and was not sullied by Geffen’s evil money. After all, there is a problem with music.

I’ve since changed my view, but these two worldviews were banged into me while growing up. Thankfully, the entire world has shifted, so “indie” means very little, “selling out” doesn’t matter (everyone’s got to make a living, especially in a business with such problems) and Spotify/Pandora/etc. are the norm.

But moreover, the notion of maturity and aging — the concept that’s turned out to be the main one of this space — looms very large. Rock and roll is, inherently, an adolescent pursuit; the Rolling Stones have been succeeding in being perpetual teenagers for the past sixty years. It’s not a mature thing to do, chasing sex, drugs and hard living. It’s a young man’s game.

Which is why I always marveled at rock critics in middle age. I’m not there yet, but I couldn’t imagine trying to be 45 and listening to a band like the Cloud Nothings or Passion Pit or something. They’re young. You’re old. This is a bridge too far.

A quick aside on a site that’s full of them: The story of my career started largely because of these issues. From age 15 until age 22, I was very convinced that I was going to work in the music industry, music criticism or radio after I graduated college. My options included working in radio/promo for an indie label (I had an in at Thrill Jockey), doing college radio outreach for a major label (had some contacts there), trying to write music features for a local paper (thought that might work, but was talked out of it by a critic) and such. At the time, she told me that I would start to hate reviewing records and she’s probably right, but looking back, I realize I would’ve outgrown it. I’m 31 now and I see music critics writing about adolescent music (read: punk, especially bullshit poppy punk) and realize I’m too old for that bullshit. When I see Esquire music writers talking about how something “rocks” — yes, I’m guilty of this — it’s an exercise in ludicrousness. It’s not that I don’t like Esquire; quite the contrary. It’s that a staid magazine like that doesn’t hold the punk rock value set that music that rocks should.

There was a guy in my college town who owned a record store — I don’t think it’s still there, but I could be wrong — who would take classes part-time at the university so he could DJ at the college radio station. He wasn’t super old, but was certainly in his late 30s. Plenty of people were into him and I understood why. He was, after all, a big connection between the KCOU past — REM in 82, breaking Uncle Tupelo, the Big Star reunion, etc.– and its present — helping break Ryan Adams, GBV’s near residence, etc. He was (is? I don’t know.) the institutional knowledge of Columbia’s college music scene. That’s valuable and I appreciate it.

But, he also had a lot of the “old guy at the club” thing to him. To quote Chris Rock, “No one knows how old he is, but he’s too old to be here.” That’s kind of how I felt about him. He had Red Krayola records and would sell you a Jim O’Rourke import, but that still felt weird, because he was old enough to be a young sibling of one of my parents. College radio was the domain of people in their 20s, preferably early 20s. It’s something you grow out of and it’s not perpetual. You move onto art movies or something. And he never did. Indeed, owning a record store seems a perpetual adolescent thing to do.

I didn’t go into music — radio, label, criticism, etc. — in any way for other reasons, but I’m glad I didn’t do it. I knew that there was a shelf life for the radio person at Thrill Jockey and it was not as long as someone who went into another job. I regret it sometimes, but not often. I miss radio and being plugged into the scene often, but I like having my own apartment and not having to eat Ramen every day. And I appreciate living in a world where I don’t spend my time having the whims of 20-year-olds decide my fate.

The point remains: We’re not the only ones who change, artists do, too. The beloved Jeff Tweedy doesn’t write about his parents’ screen door anymore (and the existential struggle that is early adulthood in the small town Midwest), but rather about the world around him, often in nuanced ways. Madonna doesn’t solely sing songs about dancing and se– well, forget about Madonna.

On some level, this is why many musicians who die young are so celebrated, as morbid as it sounds. These artists aren’t necessarily celebrated for being greater than great, but rather for not sullying the legacy by getting old and writing “what they know” (which is “being old and dealing with non-rock and roll life”). For the fans, that person never gets old, never matures and will always be the 26-year-old who wrote “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter.” Tupac never got to the stage Snoop is living right now, that of parody.

The projection of a person’s career is hard to pin down. Ben Gibbard’s earlier work is, in my opinion, his best. And Former Lives isn’t his best. Really, he hasn’t made a really good record, either by himself or with Death Cab since 2008 (Narrow Stairs does have some good tracks) and has missed brilliance since 2003 (The Postal Service record and the widely underrated Transatlanticism).

The operative action is to ask what happened. Why didn’t this writer who so captured the energy of youth, romance and the mundane-as-poetry continue doing so? I was writing a list of the things that did make it happen, but each one really is a part of the same thing: this is an artist maturing. It’s not good or bad, it just is.

Age makes people have different priorities and that shows in art. Among Gibbard’s best songs are those that capture youth, angst and the energy within. That could be the slice of high school/college life in “Photobooth” or the young person relationship problems of Give Up (“Nothing Better” and “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” being the big ones). Plans was a disappointment to me because it didn’t touch on those subjects, but rather was concept-y about the devotion of love and morbidity therein. The themes of “Soul Meets Body” are those that a 30-something thinks about. A real human 28-year-old doesn’t think in terms of “For What Reason” at a relationship’s end, because it’s fucking stupid and immature.

Gibbard has grown with each project and is a different songwriter than he was on the ¡All-Time Quarterback! record than he was on We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes, not to mention One Fast Move and I’m Gone, released a full 10 years after the ¡ATQ! record. The boy-next-door has grown up, on some level. Ultimately, that’s a good thing for him.

And it would be a really good thing for us, as fans, but it still is wholly unsatisfying. Former Lives, truly, isn’t much. The opening track is an a cappella lullaby thing about London, which is nothing short of strange. There is catchiness therein, but it’s mostly forgettable. “Duncan, Where Have You Gone?” is not without its charms, but it doesn’t hold a candle to “Grapevine Fires.” “Bigger than Love” is the best song on the record, but it’s largely carried by Aimee Mann.

I don’t know the motivation of Gibbard; I follow him on Twitter, but that’s my entire interactions with him (for the curious, he’s quite charming on Twitter). I once interviewed his DCFC bandmate Chris Walla in college, but that was many years ago.

But, it is curious that the record’s name is Former Lives, isn’t it? Via my ears, there’s little that sounds like Gibbard’s former lives in other bands/projects. The song structures and melodies are perfectly pleasant and absolutely do not echo the early songwriting of Gibbard’s career (in Death Cab or otherwise). Save for the very superficial Western sound of “Broken Yolk in a Western Sky,” the sounds don’t really even sound all that interesting. Similarly, he’s not snarling or — and I get that, he’s not a child anymore — angsty; those who thought the breakup with Zooey Deschanel would create great were very wrong. Instead, Gibbard appears to be doubling down on Codes and Keysdad-rock boring nature, leaving the angular guitars that’d occupied Death Cab’s work since 1999 — though, that’s mostly Death Cab stuff, so maybe Walla is responsible for that part of it — for pianos, some dodgy harmonies and a pop sensibility that pales in comparison to the best pop record of my lifetime.

Comparative analysis, you know?

And that’s part of the issue with favored bands and songwriters who’ve produced such brilliance. Is grading on a curve wholly essential to my reading of Former Lives? Comparing it to Something About Airplanes doesn’t accomplish much, save for making me annoyed. On the other hand, it’s impossible not to do so, partially because Gibbard’s got such a distinct sound.

It’s sad, ultimately. The baseball analogy of Willie Mays as a Met is too harsh, but it’s the closest thing I can think of. Gibbard isn’t the same songwriter he used to be, but he shouldn’t be that songwriter. I am not the same listener


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2 Trackbacks

  • By Pyramid Electric Co. | Albums That I Own on November 20, 2012 at 9:43 am

    […] why I had so much fun and really felt like I did a good job writing about the Ben Gibbard record. The record isn’t good and it makes me feel conflicted; this is an artist for whom I have […]

  • By Pain is Beauty | Albums That I Own on September 23, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    […] a Simpsons DVD commentary track — I know, I know, I reference that show a lot — wherein Josh Weinstein and Bill Oakley mention that a line writen for Homer was […]

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  • About Me

    I'm Ross Jordan Gianfortune. I am not a writer, but I sometimes write here about music and my life. I live in Washington, DC.

    I used to review each of Rolling Stone Magazine's top 500 albums of all time. Now I'm writing about albums I own.

    My work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Gazette, The Atlantic, Sno-Cone and a bunch of defunct zines.

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